Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Just Barely-Retro Game Review: The Spider-Man Movie Game Trilogy

The years haven't been kind to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movie franchise. The fan consensus has varied wildly in the years that followed the initially ecstatic reaction to watching Spidey pierce through the sky on the big screen, for the first time. People complain that Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst just don't match up well enough with their comic book counterparts, and that the repetitive "gotta save MJ" plots just don't do Stan 'The Man' Lee's classic interweaving multi-plots justice. Indeed, an awful lot of these criticisms are fair.

One thing that will never change however, is how awesome the games based on those movies are; especially the first two.

Spider-Man: The Movie

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The first Spider-Man movie tie-in game was one of the earlier games for the PS2 generation of consoles. And as a result, it plays less like a PS2 game and more like a PSOne game with far, far better graphics. The graphics in this game are shiny, slick and sexy in a way that blew my 12-year old mind. The rest of the game just plays like a more fluid version of the old (awesome) PSOne Spider-Man games that were based on the comics universe. The gameplay is so similar in fact, that most of the attacks (including the exploding 'web-dome' and the strength-enhancing 'web-gloves') are carried over and expanded upon. Sadly, the embarassing flaw of those games is also present as Spider-Man swings seamlessly throughout the level-based sections of NYC, swinging from a seemingly invisible ceiling. It's embarassingly fake that the webs never seem to anchor to anything.

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What's interesting to me about the first movie game is that it doesn't really resemble the movie that much. The style of the music is very different and very few of the key action beats are carried over. In fact, outside of the wardrobe and the facial designs of the characters, the game looks nothing like the movie. This is understandable as it was obviously being produced at the same time as the movie in order to correspond with its release. It's just interesting to think that the game developers probably had to conceptualise and design what they thought a Spider-Man movie should look, sound and feel like. It's a fair bit different from the actual movie.
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The real coup de grace of the game however is something that a lot of people don't even know about. Goblin Mode. If you finish the game on 'Hero' mode (essentially 'Hard' mode; a step down from 'Super-Hero' which is nigh impossible for this gamer) you get to play through every level as Harry Osborn using the Green Goblin's suit, gadgets and glider (five years before he did something similar in the movies). An astonishing amount of thought and preparation went into this feature of the game, to the point where I wonder why they didn't market it as one of the main features of the game.



As the Green Goblin you can run at super-speed, throw a variety of pumpkin bombs and of course, summon your machine-gun-firing, dart-shooting, napalm dropping goblin glider at will. It's almost indecent how much fun this is. The only real fault of this mode is that the story doesn't really make much sense. There are almost no cutscenes to explain why Harry is travelling through the same scenarios as Peter/Spidey did a few weeks previously and there's no resolution to the story, either. This is the only small, unfinished error of this gloriously understated mode of playing. The game is almost worth buying just for this unlockable.

Seriously guys, if you own a dusty old PS2, there is very few excuses for not buying this game.

8/10: I would probably give it a 7 if it had been released three years later, but given the time in which it was made and the little help the developers seem to have received from the movie producers, I think this game's a real gem and well worth the shit-cheap price for which you can buy it, these days.

But there's no excuse for not buying the following game.



Spider-Man 2

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By the time 2004 rolled around, the first Spider-Man movie had been released to rave reviews and the game developers must have had a much better idea of what gamers would want to be able to do as Spider-Man after leaving the theater. Not to mention the revitalised Grand Theft Auto franchise had grabbed the games industry by the balls and shown just how immersive gaming could really be. This new game recreates the Spidey game franchise from the ground up, abandoning all of the elements from the previous games ('Spider-Man', 'Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro' and 'Spider-Man: The Movie') and takes a hint from GTA by introducing a brand new element that would stick around for several games afterward: Free-Roaming New York City.

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By now, everyone had played GTA 3 and free-roaming games were all the rage. Naturally, everyone wanted to play a super-hero version of one of these games and Spider-Man fit the bill. In this game, a distilled version of Manhattan Island is completely available for Spider-Man to swing around as he sees fit, through all of the famous areas such as Times Square, Broadway, Soho and so forth. You can swing, jump and climb up as far as the very top of the Empire State Building if you feel like it, or scrape Lady Liberty's nose, if you have time to grab onto a helicopter (which takes time and patience) and swing over to Liberty Island. And unlike the previous games, Spider-Man's webs have definite, realistic anchor points meaning you have to really think like Spider-Man when you're planning your route and moving through the city.

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The game's version of New York City is buzzing with minor crimes and perils causing mayhem at every turn. The game employs two simple methods for doing these side-quests. Minor muggings, gang fights and break-ins will happen 'live' and will show up immediately on your radar and on the main HUD as a small purple blip. Other, larger threats will show up as a green-question mark above a pedestrian, with whom Spider-Man must communicate in order to figure out what's going on. These larger threats tend to be stuff like armoured car heists (with hostages), sinking boats and citizens about to fall off the side of a building (often from questionably dangerous heights).

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Personally though, I think the real triumph of the game is the way it combines the awesome free-roaming 'living' city with its story. Like a lot of movie games, the story deviates greatly from the movie on which its based, completely abolishing the 'Spider-Man No More' element of the movie where Peter loses his powers and instead creates a brand new sub-plot with Black Cat befriending the wall-crawler and attempting to convince him to leave his civilian identity (and the relationship troubles that go with it) behind and focus entirely on his superheroic career. The intervention of characters such as Black Cat as well as villains like Shocker, Mysterio (who is given one of the most impressive reinventions of a comic book villain I've ever seen) and even Rhino (who only makes a justifiably minor appearance) makes the game feel an awful lot more like the Spider-Man comics and cartoons I grew up with than the actual movie did. Spider-Man for me, always worked best as a serialised story, with tons of story threads moving along at the same time. This is something the three-act movies have always failed to convey.

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Another great part of the game is how funny it is. Tobey Maguire's performance is completely different to how he features in the movie. In the movies, Maguire portrays a socially awkward, slightly creepy Peter Parker and a blocky, stiff Spider-Man. The game gives him quite a bit more dialogue and far more of a personality akin to the character of the comics. Some of the quips Spidey makes at Mysterio's expense are among the most hilarious in the character's history ("Mysterio, you brilliant fiend!"). And then there's stuff like the mind-bendingly hilarious 'Pizza Missions', (which sees Peter trying to earn some extra money by delivering pizzas for the rotund 'Mister Aziz' as Spider-Man, to curiously located pedestrians all over the city, with as little as 2 minutes to meet delivery deadlines) which can never be praised enough.

"If I flip the pizza, Mister Aziz will FLIP-OUT!"

You can't order cheese as good as that on a real-life pizza. I really wish Maguire had been given the opportunity to play Spider-Man more like this in the movies.

Finally, just like the other two movie games, Bruce Campbell is present as the 'Tour Guide' providing witty voiceover duties in the training levels as well as hundreds of 'Hint Markers' located throughout the city. It's his biggest role in any of the games and wonderfully adds to the game's light-hearted atmosphere.

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The game isn't without its flaws. A lot of it is down to the fact that it just hasn't aged awfully well. Some parts of NYC are a bit laughable-looking compared to what can be done with today's game technology. Times Square for example, is rather embarassing-looking compared to the real thing and Central Park isn't even as big as Marley Park (for the two Dubs who might be reading this). The other ever-present problem with free-roaming games (even today), is the fact that the console's engine just can't handle large amounts of pedestrians, meaning that most of the usually bustling NYC is very sparsely populated. The other problem is the dated combat system. As mentioned previously, the imaginative combat of the previous games is abandoned in favour of a fiddly counter-based system, that completely lacks any concussive projectile attacks (although there is one very useful disarming-subduing attack called 'Impact Webbing'). This becomes really frustrating in the boss battles, which are almost entirely reliant on small, pattern-based opportunities to attack the villain by using your Spider-Sense to counter the attacks. This feature is really fiddly and can be annoyingly unresponsive. The 'spider-reflexes' feature, essentially Bullet-Mode, was dated, even in 2004. There are some really stunning attacks though, to the point where by the end of the game, when you've collected all of the power-ups, you're as invincible as Spider-Man appears to be in the movies, and you can stylishly move through a series of thugs without taking any damage.

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The only truly tragic thing about Spider-Man 2 is that the story mode has to end. The story mode of that game, with its blended elements of free-roaming and side-missions, is to date, the only thing that has ever made me truly feel like a living, breathing superhero going about their typical day-to-day routine in the city where their adventures take place (unlike say, Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is a more specific, unusual departure from Batman's usual urban haunts). Even though you have to follow the linear events of the story, it feels like it's really happening and it makes the side-missions more enjoyable. When the story mode ends and all you have are the side-missions, things get really repetitive, really fast. You can always start a new game, but this means sacrificing all of the new attacks and abilities you've gained over the course of the game, which severely chops up any momentum you've gathered. This is a common annoyance in free-roaming games of this kind, even GTA is guilty. Another disappointment with this game is that unlike a lot of the other Spider-Man games, there are no other playable characters or unlockable costumes. I desperately hoped we'd get a 'Goblin-Mode' sequel and I'd be able to tear through the expanded free-roaming streets as Harry Osborn once again, but alas it was not to be.

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Still, Spider-Man 2 is a triumph of a game and exceeded every expectation I had for it. It set the precedent for superhero games, focusing on placing your 'in' their world, rather than just plonking you in a series of levels. Its influence was far-reaching, with games based on the the Hulk and Superman trying to recapture its glory (with varying levels of success) as well as unrelated free-roaming superhero games like the excellent 'Crackdown' attempting to expand on the superhero-in-the-city formula.


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9.5/10: Time hasn't been kind to its flaws, but this is still a near-masterpiece and it set the bar for all superhero games to follow. As a game in its own context, it's a solid 8. As a Spider-Man game played by an obsessive fan, it's a 10 because I can't give it 11.

I'm still waiting for the Spider-Man game that beats this.



Spider-Man 3

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Spider-Man 3, like the film its based upon, is a mixed effort and is probably the weakest of the bunch. It follows on in the tradition of Spider-Man 2, with a gloriously free-roaming NYC with vastly improved realism where the buildings and streets are concerned. Unfortunately where the first game placed its emphasis on light-hearted heroics and witty comedy, this game is a stuff, pretentiously 'dark' thriller to coincide with the themes of the movie. In this game, very few of the side-missions are based around actually 'saving' the citizens of New York. Most of them focus on delivering vigilante justice and wiping out the various gangs of New York a la the GTA franchise.

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The game's combat system is now completely dependent on the counter-system, essentially meaning that it is impossible to hit your enemy without them trying to hit you first. The game also has a whole bunch of those absolutely sinful 'flashing button' sequences, where you have to accomodate a stupid movie sequence by pushing a bunch of buttons as they come up on the screen; essentially removing you from the narrative and demoting you to the role of event coordinator.This is extremely fiddly and frustrating and at times the artificial difficulty of the game takes you away from the Spider-Man experience.

Graphically, while the buildings and the environments look very nice, the characters are all bug-eyed and creepy-looking. Not to mention, NYC is generally bleaker and duller looking than in the previous game.

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The big draw for this game was that you get to not only play as the traditional, red-suited Spider-Man, but you also get to play in his black costume, which gives you a different range of attacks, as well as the clichéd 'rage meter' which has appeared in dozens of games before this; which when fully charged, sends Spider-Man into a frenzy of strength and speed. Some of the nearly-impossible boss battles require you to hide in a corner and tediously charge this up by slamming down on the 'B' button; unless of course you somehow magically manage to master the game's stupidly difficult counter-attack system.

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The game's biggest, most unforgivable flaw for me, however is the fact that it acts like the first two games never happened. Spider-Man encounters Rhino and Scorpion throughout the course of the game and acts as though he's never met them before, even though they appeared in the previous two games. Admittedly they are given better, longer appearances, but this is a bit of a cop-out, especially considering the continuity was so impressively kept throughout the first two games. If I can be even nitpickier about it, Spidey's battles with Shocker in the first two games are referenced; which means that the writers of the game knew what they were doing in breaking continuity, and just decided not to care.

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The game also finally gave us the 'Goblin-Mode' sequel, although this time, because the events of the actual movie contradict the stuff from the first movie game, it's less of a sequel and more of an expansion of the movie's plot. Harry is not seen wearing the traditional Green Goblin uniform and is instead clad in his dull 'New Goblin' regalia. Unlike the first game though, you can't get off your glider, so you're stuck hovering around all the time, which not only takes away from the sense of realism and 'feeling' like you're really the Goblin, but it also detracts from some of the cool abilities you had in the first game (no super-speed running or jumping) and it also makes it fiddly and difficult to play. Also (and here's the real-kicker), Goblin mode isn't even unlockable, you have to pay to download it from the Xbox Marketplace. You still have to pay for it, four years later. And get this: When you go around NY performing the side-missions as the New Gobiln, the pedestrians still refer to you as 'Spider-Man'. Balls to that.

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The game isn't completely devoid merit, though. Web-swinging is improved over the last game to the point where it's absolutely breath-taking. I also liked how the game finally introduced photography side-missions, which were always notably absent from the previous games. Having the Kingpin feature was a nice touch, although I would have liked for the writer to have reinvented him a bit (it would have been really cool if they'd made him the African-American Kingpin from the Daredevil movie). Also, while it was darn shame that they rebooted the Scorpion, the backstory they gave him was basically the same as it was in the first game, except it was excellently expanded on, showing how he was tricked and controlled by corporate masterminds. It's an interesting deviation from the comics that worked well for the quasi-movie universe.

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6/10: Overall, Spider-Man 3 isn't as much of a must-play as the first two games, particularly Spider-Man 2. It doesn't do this generation of gaming as much justice as it should.


Final Word

Licensed tie-in games have a colourful history and it's not often that a game comes along in that category that can ever be described as 'good'. The first one of the games above is certainly 'good', maybe even 'great'. The last one just barely scrapes the minimum requirements to be a 'good' game. The installment sandwiched in the middle of these two games remains a game-changing phenomenon that still stands up remarkably well, even if there are elements that betray its age.



If you are a Spider-Man fan in any random, casual capacity, I can't recommend Spider-Man 2 enough. From start to finish, it's a delightful, energetic superheroic romp that instills a similar amount of realism and verisimilitude for superhero games as Richard Donner's Superman did for the movies. And like Donner's movie, other videogames are still trying to capture the magic of Spider-Man 2, with some successes (Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction) and some dismal failures (Superman Returns; which will be reviewed shortly).

So, in conclusion, I have just one thing to say: What are you waiting for? There are pizzas to be delivered and you are just NOW arriving?! GED THIS PIZZAS TO THA CUSTOMURS!

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